At Couples Counselling Isleworth you will learn about the importance of empathy and compassion in relationships. All human beings have a need to belong: their survival depends on it. Without relationships we would wither and die in early infancy. We would suffer loneliness and isolation. We form relationships to feel safe and learn from each other. It is therefore vital in relationships to be understood and accepted. Relationships rely on a mutually shared interest in building trust and empathy. Without empathy we cannot be confident our loved ones care for our needs or see things in life as we do. But empathy requires more than a common interest. It means being emotionally sensitive and aware of their needs by feeling a sense of compassion. It also means, developing a sense of generosity and kindness towards loved ones, even if this sometimes requires making sacrifices of our own.

But what is empathy?

Empathy is the emotional capacity to put yourself in someone else’s position as if you were perceiving and experiencing the world from their perspective. It inspires a deep desire to identify with their experience, satisfy their needs and understand them. Empathy is often spoken about euphemistically as being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. However, although this capacity involves an ability to attune ourselves to the sensations and perceptions of others, it doesn’t mean we experience the world in exactly the same way as they do.

So, when we say: “I understand what you’re going through” the best we can hope for is a strong sense of identification and connection to another person. However, although we may identify with their experience, we also have to understand and respect the boundaries between us – remaining fully aware that we are separate persons. We may have a shared sense of consciousness, but it is not all-encompassing.

In loving relationships, empathy is a vital way of connecting to others as we form attachments to our caregivers in childhood and adult romantic relationships. Through empathy we are able to attune our sensations and feelings, to the emotional resonances we pick up on in others. We cannot know what others feel, but we can sense it. This means paying careful attention to their feelings and serving their needs, by reframing our own self-interest in terms of the needs of the relationship, which protects and enhances benefit and wellbeing of both people.

Empathy must be communicated. It is essentially learned through non-verbal interactions such as bonding, mirroring, observing, reflecting and showing affection. But it also requires a great deal of listening and expression from a verbal perspective. If you like it is a constant process of receiving and responding to one another’s emotions, in a mutually inclusive process. Designed to make us feel valued, respected and accepted by others – to include us as a loved and necessary member of the group and allowing us to develop a sense of belonging. No one is made to feel excluded or diminished as we express ourselves and open up to being offered feedback. Empathy, is an ongoing non-possessive and non-defensive form of relating.

It requires us to accept our own vulnerability and the vulnerability of others.

However, empathy is not an easy thing to acquire. It involves a certain amount of risk, openness to another’s point of view and an ability to adapt and change as a consequence of social learning. Although empathy usually satisfies both parties with the reward of being understood and appreciated, it can sometimes come at a cost: that of self-sacrifice and compromise.

I like to think of empathy as an internal state of being. Not quite an emotion, or a physical sensation, but more a condition of being human. It is part of our collective consciousness and the genetic legacy of our social evolution. Some scientists believe we learn to develop empathy in childhood, through millions of emotional attunements and interactions with our caregivers, which are perceived and transmitted through mirror neurones in the brain. We need empathy to survive – to secure the attachments we depend on in childhood and as we mature into adulthood, as well as the bonds and transactions which take place during social learning.

Practising Empathy in Relationships

I sometimes use the metaphor of osmosis to help highlight this fact. Osmosis is the movement of soluble molecules from one body of liquid to another through a semi-permeable membrane. With this metaphor in mind, we can imagine empathy as picking up on the emotional resonances of others and responding to them with our own internal sensations, which gives rise to a sense of what it is like to be them. However, it also includes a boundary between us, which prevents us from having an identical experience. This is the way we learn in groups, by sharing our experiences, whilst comparing and evaluating them in the light of others, so we can objectify our experiences and pass it on as knowledge.

Without empathy there would be very little impetus or motivation for us to interact in family groups or communities. Empathy is the instinctive drive behind the desire to relate to others. It’s not the sex-drive, nor even loneliness, which compels us towards attaching to others, but the desire to be understood and cared for. The drive towards relationship.

This is because we are not creatures who survive by satisfying our internal needs and sensations alone. We need to express and communicate what we feel and to have our feelings reflected back at us. This is our way of making sense of the world. Our existence and experience must be communicated before we can fully understand it. You only have to think about the compelling desire of great civilisations and historical figures to leave their imprint on the world. Communicating with future generations they will never meet, in order to express what life was like and what it was like to be them. Why else would the pharaohs lock themselves away in pyramids after death, with their story written hieroglyphs, if not to communicate with future generations? And be understood? And appreciated?

Empathy is the compelling force behind our need to reach out and make contact with others, to deepen our experience of ourselves and understand our place in the world. Through empathy and interaction with others, we grow, we develop and evolve. At EnduringMind, Counselling In Isleworth area (as well as Counselling Twickenham), I help to coach couples how to use empathy in relationships, so as to build trust, respect and a healthier way of communicating and relating.